The Pressure of Purpose and the Power of Focused Lifelong Learning

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Written in in 2019 migrated from previous blog

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

At a talk recently whilst meeting a great inspiration of mine, Gib Bulloch, I was intrigued to hear a question that came from a member of the audience around purpose.

Meeting Gib Bulloch, founder of Accenture Development Partnerships and writer of 'The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent'

"What if I can't find, or haven't found my purpose at work or in life? Do I have to find one? Do I need one to succeed (?) - to be ‘happy’?

I thought more about this and started to consider more deeply the pressure that is now being placed on finding purpose for much of the generation at the start or early stages of their careers. There seems to be so much pressure on the incoming generation to pursue 'something bigger' that the search for purpose can actually become more stressful than fulfilling, particularly when this word is so easily misunderstood. When new to the working world jobs already come with so many pressures - do you enjoy it? are you good? is the pay good? do you like your colleagues? can you see yourself there for long? and so on. Adding another layer focused on purpose can in fact become overwhelming, and, like the person that asked that question, end up being resisted rather than embraced.

Although I do believe in the positive impact that a purpose driven generation will have on the world and that there is great value in searching for and finding purpose, we must also be weary of the potential harmful impact. The age old questions of what you'd like to do when you grow up, or whether you 'found yourself' on a gap year tend to lead to heightened anxiety, pressure and fear to answer the unknown; a burden more than a benefit.

I too have been guilty of using purpose too freely. I wrote in a previous post about the importance of finding purpose in work yet on reflection I failed to realise that it is all well and good to tell others to 'get passionate' and in turn 'find their purpose' but it's useless if this is not fully understood. In giving my last year some thought about how I feel I have begun uncovering what I see as my purpose, although this will of course evolve, I began to try understand what I did to get to this point, and what ‘tools’ I could share to support anyone that either feels this pressure or is just confused about the new world gearing towards working with true meaning. Not necessarily to find some overwhelming, life-fulfilling sense of purpose, but at least more regular moments of clarity and vision. I see these moments with my housemates - days they come home with a sense of belief in what they have achieved that day and great understanding of their next steps, and, like me, contrasting days where something bigger than the job is not so obvious (days which are also not only essential but should be welcomed for their utility in the discovery).

Lifelong Learning

Focusing first on finding passions and embracing curiosities in a commitment to lifelong learning is where I believe purpose can be unearthed.

It may seem obvious to some that through learning you find out more about your passions, and values but so often when starting out in the working world or at a new job, passions, talents and the ‘things’ that gave so much enthusiasm at school, university and in our personal lives are quickly replaced by an understandable desire to impress those around us and target the next step in a career.

Lifelong learning is something we are all becoming much better at without really knowing it. Millennials (1985 – 1996) and now Gen-Z'ers' (1996 – 2005) have become incredibly knowledgeable in a vast array of areas - skilled, wise and socially conscious. Through every article, documentary, quick YouTube fix, and all the incredible access to data that the internet and information revolution has given us we are learning more than ever. Yet there is also a certain degree of overwhelm that comes with this. Overwhelm which can result in a lack of true focus and attention being given to what we are absorbing.

Our lives now are a constant battle between attention and distraction. We receive on average 40 million ‘bits’ of information per second and can only focus on 40. This means that much of the time we feel we are learning we are often distracted, taking in much less than we could be. Being more mindful of our attention is a great way to counter the constant distractions - learning with intention. I for certain would be nowhere in terms of my own understanding of my passions and goals had I not only read and listened to books over the past year but really studied them. Not even close!

Paying attention to your attention: Focused Learning

So what does this actually mean in practice? Here’s a few of my tips for focused learning in the pursuit of passion.

1.      Focused Listening - Since last year I’ve been listening to books more frequently using Amazon Audible. Listening to an audiobook during a habitual task such a commuting is a good way to use time which is often wasted, and importantly whilst doing so being committed to it; listening with intention. I take notes on Google Keep (or apple notes) throughout so I don’t pass a few minutes in a day dream and then look back over these at a later point.

2.      Focused Reading – I’ve always struggled with reading as I tend to get easily distracted by ideas or my surroundings and have to keep returning to the top or a few pages back. I now always read with a highlighter and a pen, calling out key parts and writing my own thoughts. This way when I finish the book I review what I saw as most important and reread these bits to remind myself and prompt ideas.

3.      Focused Watching – I also realised that although many of us spend time watching great documentaries much of the time we at a maximum half engaged; the rest of our attentions wasted on some other distraction (Instagram scrolling being the greatest enemy). Leaving your phone out of reach and focusing on what you are watching makes the whole of it far more enjoyable and so much more valuable (quick test – try count how many times you pick up your phone next time you watch a film or TV show). Although I'm not promoting the 'tech-lash' here, I do see it as hugely effective to try distance yourself from the constant disturbances which are so often unimportant.

4.      Focused Working - one issue whilst working on something is the constant communication and demands placed on being available at all times. Whether through Teams or Skype at work, or from WhatsApp and any other channel, every time you check a notification or new message your focus is suddenly and instantly broken, inhibiting your flow and making it far harder to complete the task. Try keeping your phone away from you whilst on a task, close WhatsApp.Web, block out time in your own calendar and make every effort when possible to keep on one task at a time; real focus is far more beneficial than multitasking.

Crucially lifelong learning is about being open to new information and not being afraid to dig deep into curiosities and where possible using time available to find out more.

Essentially you can put yourself on any course you want, change it when you want, be taught by who you want, learn how you want, write what you want and talk with who you want.

It is both liberating for personal growth and incredibly valuable in terms of finding your mission inside and out of work.

I think there is a lot of value in questioning the meaning of purpose and understanding the weight that is being placed on it as shown to me in that talk. Above I used the phrase 'unearthed' as I strongly believe this. Although it may not seem apparent, purpose is commonly something already within us it is just hard to understand or describe. It is where your passions, talents and skills intersect, and, like a skill, passion takes practice and effort. It takes a commitment to reveal itself, commitment to lifelong learning and a focused, mindful pursuit of curiosities.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive”.

I truly believe in this and have done for many years since I first heard this quote. Asking yourself what makes you come alive is about asking yourself of what makes you truly excited, enthusiastic and engaged first and through this your purpose will inevitably become clear; purpose which will be far more genuine, lasting and meaningful.

Written by
Ross Power